I’ve been reading a lot of Facebook posts and articles calling for change in the wake of the Sandy Hook murders. Many of them revolve around the need for changes in mental healthcare and gun laws (both ends of the spectrum, from banning guns to supplying all teachers with conceal-and-carry permits). Some of them are about our culture of violence, some of them revolve around the race, class, and sex of spree killers, some of them are about putting up protections everywhere. I hope these conversations continue and lead to lasting reform. But there’s one conversation I really wish would stop: blaming disasters or tragedies on the quality of peoples’ faith in God.
These talks pop up every single time something horrible happens- no matter if the cause is natural or man made. And they’ve been happening in some form for thousands of years, from the earthquake/tsunami in Japan to the Salem Witch Trials to the Crusades and on backward. Misfortune is the fault of witches, or secularism, or Jews, or gays, or whatever scapegoat the religious majority is afraid of. I’m no theologian or archaeologist, but I think it’s safe to say this goes back to the birth of the concept of religion. I guess this means my post won’t make many waves, but I might as well throw in my two cents. This post is going to (obviously) focus on religion and my own journey, so no judgement if you don’t want to continue. This post is also more raw and of-the-moment. I want to speak before I chicken out, so my prose isn’t going to be as eloquent as I’d like. Oh yeah, and I refer to God as “He” for purposes of this discussion, but my personal belief is that God is beyond concepts like gender. But that discussion is for another day. Anyway, enough excuses and explanations. Here goes:
Around my senior year of High School my English class read The Book of Job, and it really disturbed me. The Job story confused me as a younger kid, but it wasn’t until I was made to sit and reflect on it for hours per day that this story wheedled its way into my subconscious. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Job is an Old Testament story about a prosperous and pious man named Job who is seemingly punished by God. He loses his possessions and children in a deadly accident, and he and his wife are struck with illness and sores. After debating with his wife and his friends about who is really at fault for this tragedy Job breaks down and yells his anger to God. God quickly responds through the voice of a whirlwind, chastising Job for questioning him, then gives Job more children and more wealth. As a kid with a strong sense of fairness and justice, this didn’t jibe with me. The God I believed in was kind and merciful; sure he was angry and would smite people, but those people had done something wrong and God either needed to wipe the slate clean and start over (like the tower of Babel, or Sodom and Gomorrah or the people in Noah’s time period) or he provided harsh lessons to teach them (like Jonah). But to destroy someone’s life for no reason, to yell at someone who had the nerve to break down and ask why he suffered? And to then give him another wealth store and different children, and treat it as if this makes up for all his previous pain? That wasn’t the God I thought I knew. That wasn’t a God I wanted to be around.
This was around the start of a rough period in my life- multiple close family members became very ill; some of them died. The day before my aunt died I remember praying to God, asking if her sickness was punishment for people taking her for granted. “Okay, God.” I said. “I think we understand now. You can fix her.” But God doesn’t work like that. I saw my parents suffering and prayed: “OK, God. I’ll be a better kid for them. Will that win your favor and stop their pain?” But God doesn’t work that way. My depression and anxiety, at that time undiagnosed, became harder and harder to manage. I was growing up and learning more and more about how hard life was for many people, how hard life would be for me as a woman of color with little money or clout. During this period I prayed, I sang to God, I begged Him to smite me and spare the ones I loved, I got angry and shouted at Him, I thought about leaving school, leaving Catholicism, thought about killing myself. I couldn’t understand why God would hurt such good people; why he would cause such pain and suffering to fall upon others while I remained physically whole but emotionally scarred. We patched up our relationship after I was diagnosed with bipolar II, but I was still wary. After I moved to New York my faith was shaken again (I’d rather not talk about that part), and while I love God and talk to him regularly, some part of me still hasn’t made peace with my religion and my politics. But during all that time, during the times when I sobbed in my friends’ arms and yelled at how angry I was at God, do you think He ever left my side for a minute? The God who makes the rain, the grass, the animals and the elements? He who makes every atom and quark; He who makes all genders and sexualities and hearts and minds? He, my heavenly Father? No- my God never left me, just as my mother and father would never leave me, even if (and when) I’m angry at them or forget to call. Even when I make them angry, they are still my parents and they still love me no matter what happens to me.
There are some places where I might not want to pray aloud- that’s fine, I know how to pray silently or in a quiet moment I take for myself. Does the Christian God require over-loud worship as long as whatever worship we provide is sincere? Does He abandon our children because of the perceived or actual sins of society? Does he always allow or cause disaster to punish us? People all over the world pray in mosques synagogues and temples and churches – some
devote their entire lives to helping the poor or sick, or to serving a higher power. And yet some of them-yes, pious traditional Christians too- are cut down before their prime in horrific ways in their very houses of peace and worship. I mean, Job was pretty perfect and look what happened to him.
Here is God’s response to Job, taken from the KJV. It’s beautiful, and powerful, and very very long, and the first time I read it I thought God was avoiding Job’s questions, basically pulling a “Because I’m your dad and I can do all this stuff you can’t imagine, and also because I said so!” Which, I admit, he kind of is. After I moved to New York, though, my reading of the text changed. It happened after I went to my friend’s performance of Song of Job 9:11, a musical convocation by Danny Ashkenasi. It combines true stories and voices from the World Trade Center bombings with the biblical story of Job, and it’s all on youtube if you want to listen (my friend Holland Hamilton and her mom Anita Hollander are the gorgeous ladies immediately right of center). Before that concert I didn’t fully grasp both the immense trauma of 9/11 victims, nor did I grasp the story of Job in anything but a negative light. But listening to the musical arrangement of God’s words to Job I was filled with emotion, and I understood: God was providing comfort to Job, and to all who suffer. God names all of the creatures and things he takes care of, asks Job who is he to question God, his power, or plan. God reminds Job “yo, I’m God. I got all this- you think I ain’t got you too? You don’t comprehend it, but I got everything, babe.”
Sometimes we don’t know why bad things happen. Sometimes we will never know. We can ask ourselves what God asked Job: who are we to question God? Job’s friends and wife are quick to point fingers at either Job’s misdeeds or to God, but God will have none of it. In times of misfortune and strife, the people who are saying that God has deserted us or punished us are acting the same way. Who are we to say these things? Were we around to know the big plan? Can we understand every action and reason there are obstacles and potholes in our path?
There is a way to make change, however. God provides it to us, just as he provided it to Job:
And the LORD turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends: also the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him: every man also gave him a piece of money, and every one an earring of gold. 12So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning:
Job 42:11-12 (forgive me if my biblical citation skills suck)
In times like I ask everyone to gather around the sufferers, just as Job’s family gathered around him. We should comfort them, help them, and thus we shall increase their fortunes. Nothing we can do can bring back the dead- not placing blame, not social change, not religious squabbling. The best we can do is to help our fellow humans, in this way we can bless the latter end of our time on earth more than our beginning. The debates on gun control and mental healthcare and society and public saftey are some of the many ways we can do that. Blaming abortion, prayer in schools, or LGBTQ people for indirectly causing God to turn his back on the slaughter of 20 kids and 7 adults? Not a good way to do that. Not to mention a bit victim-blamey.
There, that’s my two cents. You can put yours in the comments below, but please note that while I encourage discussion I’ll delete any hate-speech, or comments putting down others’ religions or lack thereof.